I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – when Phil Earle recommends a book, it’s normally a dead cert to be a great YA read. I mean, The Art of Being Normal absolutely floored me, and became one of the best books I read last year! We Are All Made of Molecules is another great example, and this time it’s not even a book from his publishing house, which is a testament to just how passionate he is about great teen fiction. Several of my wonderful bookselling chums got very excited about the book (particularly the brilliant Sarah from Wakefield Wstones), so I decided to jenga-style pull it out of my ominous TBR as an upbeat, positive bookish cleanse after reading Only Ever Yours.
Molecules is the story of learning to live in a blended family. Brilliantly gifted, but socially stunted Stewart has recently lost his Mum to ovarian cancer, and he and his Dad are finding life within a house full of memories especially tough. Ashley is the top dog of the social ladder, beautiful and fashionable, but not exactly academically minded, and her Dad recently announced that he was gay, leaving her mother (and as far as Ashley is concerned, leaving her). When their parents become romantically entangled through work, the two very different teenagers are soon brought together when Stewart and Lionel move into Ashley’s home, ruining any hopes that she had that her family might go back to how it was. Stewart’s fully aware of how hard this is going to be for everyone, and he’s determined to be as understanding, kind and patient with his new step-sister as possible. Ashley hates Stewart, everything he’s brought into her world and all that he represents. She even hates his stupid ugly rescue cat, Schrödinger. As Stewart tries to integrate himself into a new life and a new school that’s nothing like the academy for gifted children he used to attend, Ashley struggles to maintain her perfect exterior whilst battling the churning waters of her home life.
Molecules is a book with some serious heart. On the surface of it, it seems like a pretty straightforward story of learning to embrace the differences in those around us – and it totally is. But what I expected to be a cutesy tale of two loveable misfits thrown together and learning a lesson in love, actually took on a much darker and twisted aspect as the book unfolded.
Stewart is a wonderful character. His patience with the world is finite, but he always manages to do the right thing, only occasionally letting his feelings boil over. His sense of loss is powerfully deep and profound, but hopeful. His idea that he can keep a small part of his mum alive through her molecules that still live in her old possessions (giving the book its title), is sweet and melancholy all at once. It’s Stewart, and his interpretation of the world around him that gives Molecules the emotional heart it deserves. He’s painted as being socially inept, but honestly I found his frank attitude quite often some of the funniest, or most heartwarming moments in the book. He does the right thing, when it’s hard to do, and that made me weep. Ashley on the other hand is a much more complicated character. For all of her strident confidence in her place at the top of the social food chain at school, she’s easily the least secure character in the book. She doubts herself all the time, and is constantly seeking the approval of others to make herself feel better (I can empathise with that a lot). One of the things that really lends the book the bitingly on-point edge it has is Ashley’s attitudes towards her Dad – convincing herself she’s not a “gayist”, but insisting that it’s different when it’s a member of her family, she looks at homophobia from an interesting, and often unexplored angle. Her views are wrong, and occasionally quite upsetting, but Susin lets her feel them, and that’s important because our feelings aren’t always in line with what’s right. Her shift from vacuous, appearance obsessed teen to an understanding and caring character isn’t unexpected, but the trigger for the switch is sudden and stark and absolutely emotionally heart-wrenching. It was this, and her relationship with boyfriend Jared that I think is what set Molecules apart from other upbeat spirited books like Wonder or Counting by Sevens.
Susin’s writing style is brilliantly absorbing and makes Molecules such an easy read. Even when it deals with some very heavy themes (blended families are not an easy thing for anyone), she does it with accessibility, using short chapters to create a dynamic flow to the story. The book switches perspectives back and forth between Stewart and Ashley, and they both tell the story with very different, but oddly complimentary voices. I thought, as I started it, that I’d struggle investing in either characters, fearing that they might be a little two-dimensional, but they really grew wonderfully and I soon found myself laughing and crying along with them. The real darkness that edges just before the conclusion of the story is what really caught my attention though, as Susin looks at the ideas of consent, as well as abusive relationships for teenagers and the dangers of the digital world of social media. Ashley’s warped view of being able to “change” Jared is chilling and upsetting, and the reader finds themselves screaming at her.
We Are All Made of Molecules was a delight of a book to read, emotionally charged, and touching upon a lot of complicated themes in a light writing style – never heavy handed or preachy. It warms your insides and makes you really feel and care about the characters. After all, Stewart is spot on about one thing….
We *are* all made of molecules.
Thanks for reading.
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